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Crossing the Farak River

by Michelle Aung Thin

In her first children’s novel, Michelle Aung Thin – who was born in Myanmar (then called Burma), raised in Canada, and now lives in Australia – paints a vivid picture of the modern Myanmar and the discriminatory policies meted out against its minority population.

Myanmar may be a single country but it is made up of more than 100 different ethnic groups, including the Rohingya Muslim minority, of which 14-year-old Hasina and her family are part. The Rohingya are considered illegal immigrants, even though they have lived and worked on the land for centuries. So, when the wop-wop-wop of Sit Tat army helicopters roars above her village in Rakhine province, Hasina knows trouble is approaching.

One night, men with “demon eyes” arrive. Hasina’s father shouts to the children to run as the smell of smoke and the sound of screaming fill the air. Hasina grabs her six-year-old brother, Araf, and 13-year-old cousin, Ghadiya, and leaves the rest of her family and their home behind. After days and nights of hiding in the forest waiting for her father to find them, Hasina decides they must make their way back – only to find few houses and fewer people remaining.

The three children are left on their own to figure out how to survive, where their parents have gone, whom to trust, and how to stay together at all costs. In a country where illegal child labour is widespread, the latter will prove Hasina’s greatest and most horrifying challenge.

Thin doesn’t shy away from topics of child trafficking, targeted persecution, and abject poverty; she treats these subjects directly in the context of a thrilling story. Those unacquainted with the tragic history of Myanmar will nevertheless be able to relate to Hasina, a young teen very much trying to understand her place in the world – and her budding romantic feelings for her friend Isak. Thrown into the role of protector and provider, Hasina feels ill-prepared but is imbued with resourcefulness, resilience, and determination to follow her father’s words: “Take care of them.”

Every moment of hope in the narrative seems to vacillate with a moment of despair, making Crossing the Farak River an engaging page-turner that also brings much-needed context and understanding to a country that for some 50 years had been considered a pariah state under military dictatorship.